Going to university in America

Imagine a world where the sun always shines (University of Southern California, where you can earn a bachelor’s degree in Pop Music), the clowns are the professors (Circus School at Florida State University), you can major in winemaking (Ivy League Cornell University) or study Potions with Hermione Granger (well, Emma Watson, at Brown).

In this world, you don’t have to beat the life out of just one subject, but can dabble, like Augustus Gloop in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Room, in an abundance of disciplines. In this world, you will experience the exhilaration of living in a foreign country, where people sample exotic foods-Diet Coke for breakfast! Cheerios for supper!-but speak English and watch Scrubs and Ugly Betty just like you. No one in this New World will panic you with nasty stories of needing A* grades at A level or universities cutting thousands of places. And, boys and girls, all that stands between you and this
world is a purse brimming full of gold…

Uni in the USA?

Here in the UK, university places are being cut and the number of applicants is exploding. Higher
education will lose £950 million of Government funding over the next three years. Top-up fees may more than double. No longer do good grades secure a storybook ending. It’s becoming commonplace for students with three As at A level to be rejected from all five of their UCAS choices, especially for competitive courses, such as English or economics. ‘What’s Happening?!’ wails Sean Davey on The Student Room forum, referring to his four rejections (so far) for English literature.

And with a full complement of top grades, his bewilderment is understandable. ‘Joung’ has been turned down for medicine across the board, despite star grades. ‘I feel such a failure…’ It’s no surprise, then, that demand for American college-admissions advice is increasing. Lisa Montgomery, who runs Edvice, which coaches parents and pupils through the American application process, says: ‘Parents are now more open to shopping globally for education. They want a top university for their children and there’s simply a wider range of those in the States.’ Some 37 of the top 100 universities in the world are in the USA.

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Dr Rachel Brooks at the University of Surrey, who has surveyed British youngsters’ interest in American universities, agrees numbers are increasing. Her research shows that privately educated pupils turned down by Oxbridge are applying abroad because they feel other Brit-ish universities don’t carry enough prestige. ‘Many of the young people in our study had offers from top universities, such as Bristol, Durham or London, but those weren’t deemed high enough status.

The cost differential between the USA and the UK is huge-but diminishing. If top-up fees continue to rise, it will encourage more pupils to apply overseas.’ Concerns over the evenness of the British playing field drive some families to gaze across the pond. Parents of State-educated pupils worry their youngsters won’t get a fair crack at the Oxbridge rollercoaster. Private-school parents fear reverse discrimination. ‘My daughter, a fluent French speaker who hopes to read modern languages and has a full house of top grades, was recently rejected by an Oxford college,’ a parent recently wrote to The Good Schools Guide. ‘A boy she knows from a State school, who had achieved
considerably lower grades… was offered a place in the same subject.’

America’s ‘liberal arts’ style of education is another attraction. The system doesn’t ask students to pick a degree subject until midway through university and, unlike the UK, you apply to the university, not a specific subject. The breadth was an important draw for Kaya Ensor, now at the University of Pennsylvania. ‘I had my heart set on a place where I would be allowed to try many different subjects. I certainly wouldn’t have got as into history of art as I have done if it weren’t for the liberal-arts education. I wouldn’t change places with my friends at English unis for even a second.’

American admissions offices value different things. Exam marks are important, but aren’t the be-all and end-all. ‘American universities value “rounder” profiles,’ says Lisa Montgomery. Extra-curricular activities such as music and sports, leadership positions, volunteer work or running the marathon are crucial. Most British universities, especially the top academic ones, simply don’t care.

No one said it would be easy

The arduous process of applying puts off the faint-hearted. American universities ask for one of two tests: the SAT or the ACT. Pupils stateside will prepare for years for these, normally sitting them several times to gain the highest possible score. Amanda Woolf, Director of College Prep Programmes at Kaplan London, reports a steady increase in demand for their courses. ‘For UK-educated students, the SAT is difficult. They’re not used to four-hour multiple-choice tests. The timing is tight, and British students find it hard to get used to the idea that you’re not necessarily expected to finish.’

College application forms provide their own medieval torture. Many universities will have their own unique form, although some, including Harvard and Yale, accept one similar to UCAS known as the Common Application. Unfortunately, most universities require ‘supplements’ to that, which means essays. ‘I understood how arduous and awful the process was, because I had spent some high-school time in America,’ remembers Kaya Ensor. ‘I knew that the SATs (I took a Kaplan course in London for two weeks) and the applications (I used a college advisor in London) would be costly and time-consuming. The UCAS application system seems a joke in comparison. The Stanford application asked for 12 long essays.’

However, the cost is the real fly in the ointment. Sarah Friend, careers advisor with Inspiring Futures (formerly ISCO), says: ‘Pupils mention studying in the States more often than they used to, but once they hear about the costs, they look shocked. Only a very few follow the idea through.’ The cost of studying at the most famous private universities is about $35,000 (just over £23,000) for annual tuition alone.

The total package (tuition, plus room, board and student services fee) is closer to $50,000 (about £33,500). However, these titans of American education also provide the most financial assistance, and many extend this aid to international applicants. For British students whose family incomes are under $66,000 (£44,000), the cost of a Harvard University education can be less than uni at home. According to Margaret Gandy at College Guide Post, even families with incomes as high as $200,000 (£134,000) can, under some circumstances, get financial aid from the wealthiest universities.

Many of these top universities provide no merit (non-needs-based) scholarships at all, saying that all their students would qualify. Laura Spence may have got a free ride at Harvard, but the scholarship came thanks to her parents’ income, not her brains. If you’re looking for a bargain,
tuition fees for international students at the cheapest state-funded American universities can be as low as £8,000 a year. Good A levels or the IB can count towards American university credit, so up to a year can often be shaved off the standard four-year American college course.

Is there another way?

Harriet Plyler, who runs The Good Schools Guide International, warns: ‘It’s not easier to get into a top uni in the States than into a top British university. We see Oxbridge rejects turning to Harvard and Yale, and, usually, it’s a waste of time.’ In 2009, Yale received 308 applications for entry from British students, up from 257 the year before. It gave places to 26. An easier option for those who want to sample American education-and beef up their CV on the cheap-is to apply to a UK course that allows for study abroad.

Many-if not most-universities will have an exchange arrangement with American universities. If they don’t, they will usually allow students to organise a term or a year abroad under their own steam. Some degrees, such as Exeter’s BA English with Study in North America or Lancaster’s BSc Geography/North America, make a year of study in the States a compulsory part of the course.

If your main aim is simply to study abroad, you won’t find anything easier or cheaper than the Erasmus Programme, an EU-funded student exchange that enables students to spend from a term up to a year at a university in Europe. Applicants are eligible for a grant (this year, €225 a month) and if you go for a full academic year, you will pay no university fees at all for the whole year. Most UK universities take part in the scheme, but not all departments within each institution, so it’s worth checking.

Keep in mind that American universities are suffering many of the same financial pressures as their European counterparts. So, research is important to make sure that your adventure abroad is more Lord of the Rings than Lord of the Flies. Fulbright’s USA College Day in London each October is a good place to start. Some independent schools, notably King’s College Wimbledon and Wellington College, have run their own American university conferences. Uni in the USA is a great little book about American universities from a UK point of view (written by a British girl at Harvard, published by The Good Schools Guide).

Janette Wallis has been an editor of ‘The Good Schools Guide’ for more than 10 years, and provides university and school advice (www.goodschoolsguide.co.uk)